Wild about Miami

As hometown or tourist town, a native sees the city from other angles -- including as it was before it ever was a city

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 21, 2004
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MIAMI -- "Stay 10 to 15 feet away from all gators and snakes," the park ranger warned in the friendliest of tones. We five cyclists were about to set out on a 15-mile bike trail flanked by the quiet river of sawgrass just west of Miami known as Everglades National Park.

"If you hear high-pitched squeaking sounds, those are the baby alligators. Keep an eye out for the mother," the ranger said.

With that in mind, we urban dwellers pedaled onto the narrow concrete path where visitors can get up close and personal with south Florida's most native of natives.

The Everglades' steamy swamp and muck swarm with deer, water snakes, otters, birds, and lots of dragonflies who like to piggyback on cyclists' shoulders. But the most iconic of all wildlife here is the alligator, whose image adorns endless key chains and local license plates.

Before there was an official Miami, the land where the city now thrives was a steamy place of predators and prey, much like this Everglades riding trail. In the spirit of a 1979 tourist campaign that had posters urging, "Miami. See It Like a Native," I, a Miami native, and some Miami friends decided recently to meet the city again, becoming tourists in our hometown. I wanted to rediscover the local color that is so easily eclipsed by the deco decadence of Miami Beach and the bare-it-all beaches and party-on bars that have become magnets for wannabe celebs and hip-hop industry royalty.

So it was that on a sizzling Saturday afternoon we drove 30 miles west from the Florida Turnpike on the Tamiami Trail (also known as Southwest Eighth Street or Calle Ocho, but more about them later) and arrived at Shark Valley in the Everglades, where the 15-mile bike loop awaits.

After that ranger warning, we pedaled along a flat, straight line. You can stop along the trail's edge and search the water for signs of wildlife -- there are no guardrails or fences to separate man from beast.

It was a humid day (there are two seasons in south Florida: wet and dry), and, because of that, the ranger told us, the gators probably would be farther inland where there is more water for them to wallow in and stay cool.

We saw none at first, so we sprinted when one member of our group shouted, "Hurry! There's a gator over here," as we reached the four-story observation tower at the trail's halfway point.

From the top of the tower, we saw an alligator bobbing in the water below. When he saw us, he seemed to pick up his snout from the water and pose. Who said the natives here were unfriendly?


This is the rest area where everyone gulps down the water they brought as they take in the sweeping sawgrass vistas. None of Miami's high-rises is visible. It's an oasis of grass and a sheet of slow-moving water.

"This looks like Africa, a savanna," declared Eric Vasallo, a friend and fellow home-grown Miamian as he marveled at the golden wet fields of sawgrass all around us.(The view is featured quickly in the opening montage of the TV series "CSI: Miami.")

The only sounds were the hum from a chorus of crickets and the buzzing of mosquitoes and, yes, those shrieking cries from baby alligators, which we couldn't seem to spot but certainly heard.

"Miami city kids don't know what they have in their own backyard. Who knew this was here," Vasallo marveled before we continued on our tour.

(If, by the way, you don't have a bicycle, you can rent one here for $5.50 an hour. The trail takes about two hours, depending on how fit you are. There is also a two-hour tram tour with a park service naturalist.)

Back on the path, some cyclists whizzed by as if they were training for a race. Others, mostly families, walked.

With less than 3 miles to go, we pedaled on with the little steam left in our bodies. Then a small deer appeared from the bushes and slowly crossed the path before us. It didn't seem scared like those familiar deer-caught-in-the-headlights. It just stopped and stared at us, and then ventured on its way. It was followed a few minutes later by a larger, antlered male -- its father? its mate? -- from out of the same bushes.

A two-hour bicycle ride builds an appetite, so afterward we drove back to the city and headed to another native Miami haunt: Versailles Restaurant, known for its Cuban food. The restaurant is also on Southwest Eighth Street, but in the heart of the city's Little Havana neighborhood.

The brightly lighted Cuban palace of a restaurant is accented with wall-to-wall mirrors, green borders, and dazzling chandeliers. This has become the place for reporters to get a cup of Cuban coffee and a soundbite for the day on any given political topic, especially concerning Fidel Castro.

The Versailles is always abuzz with activity. That might be because of the funeral home nearby and cemetery down the street. Besides a good quick lunch or dinner, this seems to have become the unofficial place to celebrate the life of a loved one who has died.

The Versailles is known for quick service and generous portions of dishes such as ropa vieja (shredded roast beef in a light tomato sauce), arroz con pollo (chicken on a mountain of yellow rice), and picadillo (ground beef seasoned with pimentos). I devoured a chicken steak sandwich on scrumptious Cuban bread, and for dessert I scooped up a chocolate cheesecake. (They had run out of dulce de leche cheesecake.)

The next day, I returned to Calle Ocho, about four blocks down from the Versailles, for more hometown Cuban flavor. I stopped by a store called Sentir Cubano (To Feel Cuban), which sells all things Cuban, from coffee cups with Cuban motifs to voluptuous sangria pitchers and mailboxes with Cuban adages. Photographs and posters of Havana and other Cuban neighborhoods decorate the walls. A toy rooster says "ki-ki-ri-ri" (a Spanish variation of cock-a-doodle-doo) to a human clap.

There are a lot of roosters in Miami (in people's yards, roaming side streets, and on plates as delicacies). It is such a beloved food -- and pet -- in these parts that artists have memorialized the bird with whimsical 6-foot-tall statues all along Calle Ocho.

Since 2002, giant sculptures of colorful roosters, a national emblem in many Caribbean countries, have dotted the spine of this Little Havana neighborhood, home to mostly Cuban and, most recently, Nicaraguan immigrants. The "gallos" (roosters or cocks) stand guard outside some of Miami's Cuban landmarks such as La Carreta Restaurant, where the rooster is clad in a straw hat and guayabera shirt (loose cotton and buttoned). Others sport bull-fighting capes, baseball caps, or smoke cigars.

Besides following the roosters as guides, follow your nose to the local cafeterias with street-side coffee windows, as well as cigar-rolling stores, art galleries, bodegas, and parks. The aroma of Cuban coffee perfumes the whole district, including Maximo Gomez Park (at Calle Ocho and 14th Street), known as "Domino Park," where groups of men and women puff cigarettes and cigars, banter in Spanish, and gently slide their black-and-white playing pieces across the open-air domino tables.

On the same block, another rooster stands along the Paseo de las Estrellas (Walk of Stars), Little Havana's takeoff on the Hollywood landmark. Here, the stars are famous Hispanic personalities such as baseball player Sammy Sosa, TV personality Cristina Saralegui, and Samy, local stylist to the stars.

To get another bird's-eye view of Miami, I headed downtown and took a free ride on the Metromover, a small, boxy, Blade Runner-esque trolley that slithers like a theme-park ride through the Miami skyline. If there isn't a child sitting in front of one of the big windows, sit up front and watch the train slide and glide on an elevated railway above the bustling metropolis.

It's akin to looking at Miami through 3-D glasses, as the automated car wends it way between the downtown office buildings, Miami-Dade Community College, and the Bayside Marketplace. With sunset encroaching, skyscrapers stood like giant steel trees, glowing in soft blues.

Typical Metromover riders are office workers grabbing a quick bite to eat and college students getting an air-conditioned respite from the heat. Some are hotel workers who will transfer to a bus in another part of downtown, while others are tourists (or are they residents?) trying to see another side of Miami.

Johnny Diaz can be reached at

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